The Red Tent

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Editorial and Opinion  |  House: Booksie Classic
Book Review of "The Red Tent" by Anita Diamant.

Submitted: December 27, 2011

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Submitted: December 27, 2011

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"The Red Tent"

By Anita Diamant

 

 

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Book Review by Niamh Jiménez.

 

"The Red Tent" is a compelling, inventive portrayal of the life of Dinah, the daughter of the biblical patriarch Jacob and his second wife Leah. The story is based upon the Torah, Genesis 34, which details the rape of Dinah by the debauched prince of Shechem and the subsequent acts of surgical mutilation and homicide invoked by Dinah’s brothers, the vengeful Jacobites. Upon the forced loss of Dinah’s virginity, Shalem, prince of Shechem, requests that his father, the King, proffer an abundance of gifts and warm overtures to Jacob in the hopes of “buying” Dinah. Jacob and his sons are mightily displeased and the king’s ostensible kindness goes unrequited. Despite their discontentment, Jacob agrees to ratify the proposed conjugal contract if the men of Shechem allow themselves to be circumcised and thus transformed into Jacobites. This grotesque demand is followed by the depraved and blasphemous slaughter of the entire house of Shechem; after which, Dinah is never mentioned again.

The novel is divided into three parts. The first, dubbed “My Mothers”, recounts the story of Dinah’s aunts and mother, whom she views collectively as her “mothers” and with whom she shares a special intimacy, as the only daughter of Jacob. This part adheres firmly to what is written in the Bible, evoking the arrival of Jacob to the household of Laban and his betrothal to Rachel, a celebrated beauty of the region. This betrothal is soon followed by his marriage to Leah and the acquirement of the last two sisters, Zilpah and Bilhah, as wives of a lesser status. Following the matrimonial rites, Diamant tells of the wild nocturnal copulation and men’s seemingly insatiable appetite for sexual stimulation and the production of progeny, even hinting at the wandering shepherd’s penchant for bestiality; she evokes the primeval, almost animalistic nature of their coupling, which, without the modern instruments of contraception, gave rise to an abundant flock of sons. Diamant describes the mothers’ transformation from early puberty and the first menstruation to the stages of fertility and continuous childbearing. As in the Bible, Diamant describes the constant “begetting” of sons and describes meticulously the details of their lineage, including which wife of Jacob “begat” which child.

In this part of the book, Diamant tells of the household’s growing prosperity, as Jacob tends to the sheep and goats with superlative knowledge and skill in the area of shepherding. Laban, the licentious and inert father of Jacob’s wives, is scorned for his indolence and his maltreatment of his concubines. The red tent is also introduced, a segregated place of rest and ritual for the women during their menstruation cycle. The cycles of menstruation and ovulation, which correspond to the moon’s cycles, confound the men of the tribe, who are not permitted to enter the tent while their women bleed. The women offer sacrifices, prayers and incantations to the goddess of heaven and worship a litany of different gods and goddesses, each of whom are associated with different blessings, such as health and fertility. Diamant evokes a certain pagan polytheism and atavistic custom of superstition amongst the people of the tents and emphasises the women’s domestic role as the spinners, weavers, cooks and childminders, as well as their firm belief in herbal lore and alternative medicine.

In the second portion of the book, labelled “Dinah’s Story”, Dinah recounts her own experiences of hormonal and emotional development, moving from a bare-breasted, untamed girl to an accomplished, menstrual woman.  She tells of her deep, intimate relationships with her mothers, whose aspirations and secrets she discovered during their months of ritualistic isolation in the red tent. She grew to know the characters and dispositions of her brothers, their idiosyncrasies and habits, their place within their father’s tribe, as well as their inherent virtues and evils. She recounts the gradual, cumulative depletion of her mothers’ energy and strength from constant childbearing and regales the reader with candid and explicit details of childbirth. As the story is written in the first person, Dinah’s transition from girlhood to womanhood is captured with tangible authenticity; no longer unchaste in her ruminations, she expounds upon the arrival of libidinous longings and lust. As a mature woman who has experienced her first menstruation, she is now permitted to witness child-birthing and soon becomes an accomplished midwife.

Dinah’s story becomes more and more enthralling as she tells of the instant attraction kindled between her and the prince of Shechem.  Diamant reverses the biblical assertion that Shalem “raped” Dinah, instead building a story around their passionate elopement and love for one another. She does however adhere to the biblical claims of forced circumcision and the subsequent slaughter of the king and prince of Shechem and their consorts. Diamant deftly captures the sentiments of grief, loss and bereavement, while also conveying the inexorable impermanence and undeniable mortality of humankind. Death occurs frequently throughout the novel, illustrating the irrefutable cycle of life and man’s mortality, while also intimating the lingering presence of man after death:

“I died but I did not leave them....There is no magic to immortality.”

The third portion of the book, labelled “Egypt”, recounts the long odyssey undertaken by Dinah and her mother in law to Egypt. This portion is filled with drama and spine-tingling realisation, the acquirement of foreign language and new skill, and the birth of Dinah’s first son, raised to be the prince of Egypt. This is the most climactic, imaginative segment, yielding up reunions of the long estranged, tireless pursuit of love and identity, and presenting a fabulous, wholly satisfying denouement.  I enjoyed The Red Tent, the story of a woman seeking simply to survive in an ancient patriarchal society. However, I thought the language insipid and uninspiring in certain passages; there were very few individual literary quirks or expressive mechanisms to shape and define her distinct voice as a writer. Diamant made few attempts at lyricism or figurative construction; while the story itself was engaging, the language was devoid of tropes such as metonymy, and the descriptive passages, many of which expounding upon the glories of nature, held few astute personifications or instances of pathetic fallacy. As a whole, it was quite a Spartan, unadorned piece of literature, almost abstemious in character.

Red Tent portrays the sour implications of a patriarchal society; a society based upon preconceived notions of masculine superiority, and the woman’s inherent duty to satisfy man’s carnality and produce posterity. In a deeper psychological, less visceral light, the novel emphasises the importance of rejoicing in small, internal glories and the blessings of nature; while Dinah does achieve anything of mammoth, world-affecting proportions, she achieves a number of smaller, personal conquests: surmounting grief and rediscovering love, the realisation of self-identity and her indispensible role in the gift of life through midwifery.  As a common woman, Dinah savours life’s small pleasures and blessings, but is fundamentally concerned with the universal challenge of survival, a victory in itself.

 


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